Monday, 24 September 2018


A Night on the Town

Last Friday night was a much-anticipated night out. The event was a double bill featuring Mack MacKenzie from Montreal’s Three O’Clock Train and Mike McDonald from Edmonton’s Jr. Gone Wild. Their respective bands have shared a stage before, as recently as this year for shows in Montreal and Ottawa. Ann and I were keen to shake our cabin fever in the wake of a week’s worth of late September summer snow.

Both acts are hangovers from a rawer time, when “jam” was not a synonym for a three-minute Auto-Tuned stream with beats programmed by eight writers, when a “deep cut” was a wound and not a track off an album’s second side. Three O’Clock Train and Jr. Gone Wild were never corporate mainstream. Eerily concurrent though separated by the geography of a big, empty country, they thrived on university pub audiences and that sweaty, young vibe. Back then their amplified noises were dubbed cowpunk and today an amateur expert might allow alt-country or roots designations. The main songwriter in each band was word-struck, articulate with imagery and rhyme, a voice of substance backed by volume and distortion, wow and flutter.

The venue was a neighbourhood local, the Hilltop Pub. It’s tucked away in one of those grey and forlorn commercial plazas that dot the provincial capital. Given the size of the room and the modest $15 cover, I had assumed the MacKenzie and McDonald show would be a hot ticket for a certain segment of Edmonton’s musical fraternity, ageing baby boomers like Ann and me who still insist on listening to music played through dedicated equipment instead of crappy little Chinese telephones - proper sound moves air - I was wrong: Ann and I arrived early to secure a good vantage point and table; we scored the best seats in the house.

Ann’s niece Sherry and her husband Steve joined us in our booth. Edmontonians, they’d dated to sounds of Jr. Gone Wild and had been impressed by the Three O’Clock Train vinyl we’d lent them recently.  They are the type of folk who ensure music festivals thrive: “Three days? Tarps? Portable toilets? Inclement weather and mud? Expensive bottled water and long lines for the beer tent? We’re all in and we’re bringing our kids.”

The Hilltop is by no means a first date destination, but Sherry and Steve could’ve picked a worse place than an anonymous local dive to celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary. Beer signs not chandeliers. Our waitress was attentive and friendly. The four meals she served up from the Hilltop’s kitchen were standard pub fare though superior to the food indifferently flung at patrons of chain sports bars.

Once the live music started I swiveled and did a quick head count, I did not exhaust my fingers. In addition to our group of four, two guys were examining the pool table, three more guys loitered at the end of the bar and one annoyingly loud know-it-all sporting that already-tired look of fifties hair and glasses atop a Grizzly Adams beard regaled two bored girls about nothing within my hearing. Vacant tables and a miserable gate: a disheartening pairing to each musician, I suspect. The night played out as a private concert, fabulous for us but some things are best experienced immersed in a crowd. My sole quibble is that the M.M. and M.M. did not bash out a couple of songs together. My hunch is that both performers were relieved to make their escape. No encore at the Hilltop.

A potential home-wrecker lurked in the parking lot between sets. I was smoking, distracted by the pathetic sight of an underage girl scavenging for cigarette butts while a fellow about my age rambled on to me about turntables, peering intently over his granny glasses. Little did I know Ann was being chatted up by a genuine wizard. How could I, how can I ever compete with a wizard? His poorly cropped business card would be a perfect rectangle in a German silent movie:

Tarot, Runes, Occult Advice
(No Love Spells, Curses or Other Dark Art

His seduction of Ann was brief. “I’ll read your Tarot in exchange for a beer.” It was my apparent good fortune that the wizard adhered to his own strict standards and did not cast a love spell on Ann. Sherry and Steve capped their special night by driving Ann and me home. I unlocked the front door and Ann exhibited no obvious reluctance to enter the Crooked 9 despite the sorry lack of love potions in the medicine chest and liquor cabinet. As of this writing we’re still together.   

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Wednesday, 19 September 2018


When Nature Shuffles the Deck

Last week small ragged vees of squonking Canada geese were winging their way through the wet metal sky. The birds seemed to be gathering together for their great migration south, their annual flight. The oddity was their timing as there was still a week’s worth of days left on the calendar before summer slipped into autumn. It’s possible the birds’ travelling instinct had been goosed by five consecutive days of snowy weather.

Ann and I live in a winter city. We know it. It is what it is. But snow during the last lingering days of summer? C’mon. Our garden is still green but devastated. The patio umbrellas are stalagmite icicles. We like to leave our yard in the fall as we wish to find it in the spring, neat and tidy. Our annual autumn clean up has always been a task tinged by mild melancholy though its repetition explicitly implies our faith in a brighter future even as the days grow shorter. Me, I tend to get hung up on which team cap to sport whilst working outside because all of the overlapping baseball, football and hockey results in October matter at least a little bit.

From time to time Ann and I muse about where else we might like to live in Canada instead of Edmonton. An unavoidable topic as we gripe about snow flurries in the summertime. We discount taxation and politics to facilitate our discussion, understanding that changing the scenery to enjoy the final fifth or so of one’s life is generally climate driven though there’s a myriad of considerations to be contemplated. Ann's three siblings reside on Vancouver Island. My sister splits her time between Montreal and Prince Edward Island. Some friends in Alberta consider Kelowna and British Columbia’s other southern environs Oz. Some plan to eventually return to the once-familiar, the places they were born.

Ann and I always conclude that there’s no place we’d rather be than Edmonton. As with any place, there’s a lot to complain about here. The weather, for instance; when distant friends choose not to visit us in January, we know it’s nothing personal. Successive municipal and provincial governments have made some appallingly wrong-headed decisions whose disastrous consequences only became apparent over time. Heritage buildings were razed for parkades; public transit and cycling initiatives were botched. For all its warts, this town is our town and we’ve no plans to leave. Still, when we’re outside at this time of year, weather permitting, we gaze up at the geese and wonder once more where else we might prefer to be.        

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Thursday, 13 September 2018


Home Again in the Heart of Habs Country

Last Thursday Ann and I boarded a train at Quebec City’s lovely and historic Gare du Palais and journeyed upriver, arriving at Montreal’s Central Station three hours later but on time. Our hotel was just a few blocks away on Mountain Street. I figured I was a logistical genius. However I neglected to account for the fact that we’d be grappling with three bags, about 100 pounds of luggage, and that two solid days of walking the winding, hilly streets of Vieux-Quebec would exact a toll on Ann’s new titanium hip.

As I hauled our belongings from the taxi’s trunk in front of our hotel, I glanced across the street into the window of a Scotia Bank branch. The décor was a massive black and white hockey mural which led the eye to a framed and autographed Carey Price sweater. Across Rene-Levesque Boulevard, a little further down the hill, three Montreal Canadiens flags drooped from the brick façade of a pub. Even the weariest and most discombobulated traveller knows where they are once they arrive in my hometown. Our hotel’s lobby featured a portrait gallery of Canadiens players from the 70s, consistent winners, hall of famers.

Though the team has been mediocre for a quarter century, it is omnipresent in the Montreal region. The club has a ten-per-cent stake in a condominium tower which abuts the Bell Centre, the home rink constructed without a dime of taxpayer money. The organization operates a restaurant called Taverne 1909, named for year one, and a boutique and a world-wide digital fan club. A downtown street has been renamed in honour of the team. The club’s elaborate practice complex is located in Brossard on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River. The farm team laces up in Laval, Montreal’s off-island sister city to the north. There is an Avenue des Canadiens inside Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport. Every souvenir-tourist joint and currency exchange outlet sells Canadiens merchandise. Standard bar and pub décor requires Montreal hockey memorabilia, even in the Irish ones. The Rolling Stones have lifted the iconic bleu, blanc et rouge home sweater design to sell ‘lolling tongue’ t-shirts. Hell, even my older sister is aware of the Montreal Canadiens’ existence – that, friends, is market penetration.

Despite such a public presence, the Montreal Canadiens are an incredibly secretive entity, corporate and conservative. For lifelong Habs fans, interpreting press releases issued by the brains trust is a lot like decoding diplomatic signals from Pyongyang or the Kremlin. We do know that the club tends to trade away its best and most dynamic players for committing thoughtcrime. We do know that any skater designated as ‘captain’ is doomed to depart.

During the summer news from the ivory bunker was not promising. The Canadiens were looking to trade captain Max Pacioretty, a ten-year veteran who’s generally reliable for 30 goals a season, a key attribute for a team with a chronic inability to score. Both the player and his agent repeatedly reiterated Max’s desire to remain in Montreal. There were the usual platitudes about pro hockey being business, but didn’t Max refuse a trade to Los Angeles? And didn’t Max and General Manager Marc Bergevin whose five-year rebuilding plan isn’t running as smoothly as a train between Quebec and Montreal, shake hands at the Canadiens’ annual charity golf tournament?

Late Sunday morning Ann and I crossed Mountain Street for brunch at Ye Olde Orchard pub. The waiter actually knew that ‘ye’ is pronounced ‘the’ because the letter ‘y’ is the modern and inadequate typographer’s equivalent of the old English letter thorn which was phonetically rendered as ‘th.’ Week one of American football was on every TV. My eye kept wandering over to a life-sized painting of legendary Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden, more than six feet of crucial saves. He had presented me with a Most Valuable Player award in 1972. I still have his autograph somewhere (I think) on a rectangle of graph paper. I don’t know what happened to the trophy. I do know Dryden’s ‘The Game’ is still in my library. It is the best hockey book ever written by an insider, possibly the best hockey book ever written by anybody. Winners write history.

When we returned to our hotel room, housekeeping was still at it. We decided to stroll down the hill to the Bell Centre and examine the hockey plaques and statues. I was lucky enough to see and marvel at the skills of many of the bronze figures. We purposely avoided the souvenir store because I’ve got seven or eight sweaters, two caps, three beer steins, two coffee mugs, salt and pepper shakers, two DVD sets, a shot glass, a toque and Christ knows what else. I pointed to a giant banner of Max Pacioretty hanging from the Bell Centre bricks and said to Ann, “Well, they haven’t banished him yet. They’re as good as the Soviets when it comes to erasing and rewriting history, Stalinesque. His picture’s still here.”

Hours later, as we slept, the Canadiens announced the trade of Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights at one o’clock in the morning; breaking news too late to make the morning papers, a dusty media strategy too because very few people actually read actual newsprint these days. The club then followed up, insisting its captain had wanted out since last season and that management was simply being accommodating and gracious. Spin for another idiotic misstep?

The Canadiens might be the post-truth era’s ultimate franchise because winning is everything except during the season. There are real estate holdings, restaurants and stores to be overseen. Players who refuse to fully embrace the hockey team’s secret and unknowable code are dealt to other clubs in exchange for potential inductees to the cult of the CH. All I know is the current system is not clicking on the ice and that Habs fans, me especially, are about to experience another long and frustrating winter.   

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Wednesday, 12 September 2018



Ann and I have a travel ritual. We scavenge stones from wherever we are and when we fly way back home I pack our souvenirs in my head with the other rocks. Our little collection is situated by the edge of the first of five stairs up to our front porch. There’s a chunk of black lava from Hawaii, something red from Prince Edward Island and something green from a Vancouver Island beach. Our latest addition is a rectangle of granite, debris light-fingered through the temporary fence surrounding the restoration of a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Old Quebec is the only walled city in Canada. The site was originally and for who knows how long an Iroquoian kanata known as Stadacona. French explorer Jacques Cartier came upon the bustling, permanent settlement in 1535 after he’d mapped the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River and then kept sailing up its wide waters. Canada is a European mangling of the Iroquois word for village. In 1608 restless sailor Samuel de Champlain ordained Stadacona the hub of nascent New France. To this day anything designated ‘royale’ has absolutely nothing to do with the House of Windsor.

In the early 1980s Quebecois comedian Yvon Deschamps whose everyman performance persona natters squirm-inducing, idiot savant observational humour, gave his audiences a succinct history lesson of France’s colony (paraphrase): “Everything was fine until the English turned up at the bottom of page 62.” Or, 1759.

Last week Ann and I strolled every narrow, winding street in the old town. We cut through ruelles, 18th century greystone walls Frankenstein-stitched with 20th century-modern black iron fire escapes. We spun happily and confusedly in the charming maze for two days, encountering curving inclines laid with uneven toe-stubbing pavers when we expected level straightaways. We tripped, we stumbled, but we never got lost. Vieux-Quebec is a tight area, constrained by its geography and its ramparts.

Perched atop a sheer promontory, Quebec was assumed to be impregnable from the river by French military strategists. Consequently Quebec’s initial fortifications faced every other point on the compass. The British, perhaps buoyed by the Royal Navy’s noble tradition of sodomy, scaled the cliff in the dead of night, audaciously coming in the back door. They then buttressed the existing wall and built the citadel. The threat wasn’t rebellion so much as the Americans feeling their manifest destiny oats following their victorious war for independence.

La citadelle is a national historic site but still operational. It is the home of the legendary Royal 22nd Regiment, the ‘Van Doos’ in English mangled French. The fort’s walls are asymmetrical, spurred to deflect cannonballs. It is surrounded by a deep ditch and a sloped, manicured glacis – a clear field of fire. I tried to tug Ann through the base’s main gate but we were halted by a sentry. He asked me politely in French what the hell I thought I was doing. I said, “Nous sommes tourists.” He replied in English, “Yeah, I figured that out.” We retreated, passing a NO DRONE ZONE sign, my imagination in the stratosphere: the past, the present and future fiction colliding.

Perhaps because my holiday reading was ‘Trigger Mortis,’ a new and delightfully engaging James Bond novel by British author Anthony Horowitz, I said to Ann, “Can you imagine a sequence in a Bond film here? Maybe twenty minutes, crazy, hilly streets, stone walls and a fortress, I don’t know why he’d be in Vieux-Quebec but this city would look great on celluloid.”

Ann replied that she was thirsty and maybe it was time for lunch. I bowed my head and we walked on; I was looking for a piece of history.

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Saturday, 1 September 2018


Won’t You Play that Song Again for Me?

Just as a Monday in July must have a different feel than a Monday in November for a high school student, weekend mornings have a different vibe around the Crooked 9. The Saturday newspapers Ann and I receive are fatter. Our coffee tastes a little more robust. The weekend shows on CKUA, Alberta’s listener-supported public radio station, seem more in tune with the dynamic Ann and I have created in our house, our very, very fine house.

A particular pleasure every Sunday morning in the sixty minutes between nine and ten o’clock is a CKUA show called ‘Play It Again.’ Hosted by a British émigré named Tony Dillon Davis, the weekly broadcast features music that charted from the twenties to the fifties; popular songs our mothers would know. The hook for me is that a portion of each hour is devoted to a particular year. Any list of songs within a set of defined parameters must necessarily range from genius to dire schmaltz but Dillon inserts these dusty old standards into their historical contexts. His snapshots are brief, shellac on vinyl, because ultimately the music does the talking.

For a quarter of an hour or so last Sunday it was 1934 in the Crooked 9. Fascism was on the rise in Europe; Hitler declared himself der Fuhrer. Italy won the FIFA World Cup. British poet, classicist and First World War memoirist Robert Graves published ‘I, Claudius.’ Stateside, drought-stricken Oklahoma blew away, the ‘Gashouse Gang’ won baseball’s World Series and Franklin D. Roosevelt was Time’s Man of the Year. If Americans weren’t reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night,’ it’s because they were watching ‘It Happened One Night’ in cinemas. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote a ballad called ‘Blue Moon.’

A primordial version of their composition debuted in a film from that year called ‘Manhattan Melodrama.’ The movie is remembered only because it was the last moving picture criminal and folk hero John Dillinger saw before gangbusters gunned him down under the marquee of a Chicago theatre. Box office! This history takes me home, forward to other places in time.

Blue moon
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own

Blue moon
You knew just what I was there for
You heard me saying a prayer for
Someone I really could care for

And then suddenly appeared before me
The only one my arms will ever hold
I heard somebody whisper “Please adore me”
And when I looked, the moon had turned to gold

Blue moon
Now I’m no longer alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own

The calendar on your kitchen wall or in your electronic device is a human construct. Imprecise. A lot goes on out there in our solar system and inside the shield of Earth’s atmosphere. It can be a challenge to align things the way they really are, orbits, rituals and equinoxes, with the way we would like them to be. A blue moon is an innocuous example. There should be twelve full moons per year, three per season. Well, doesn’t that thirteenth, a fourth in one season, make for a bonus werewolves’ night out?

The recorded version of ‘Blue Moon’ I know best was waxed by Elvis at Sun Studio in July, 1954. The one I really love was sung over and over again by my mother. Her vocals are in the ether now but I can still hear them. The Marcels topped the Billboard Hot 100 with ‘Blue Moon’ in 1961. Though I was alive then it’s unlikely I’ve retained an actual memory from those first eighteen months. Anyway, we didn’t move into the house I remember growing up in until 1963. The kitchen floor was probably asbestos tiles, red interspersed with grey, a crossword grid without a pattern. I spent a lot of time on that floor while Mom crooned her own interpretations of ‘Blue Moon,’ likely inspired by covers cut by Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin, perhaps Mel Torme, although his hit with the number dated from 1949. I remember the neighbours knocking on the common wall; I believe they were kidding, I hope they were, our families were good friends.

When Mom began to sing ‘Blue Moon’ I began to cry like a child. In my defense, I was a child. Mom would always say, “Oh, Geoffrey, listen to all of the words. There’s a happy ending, everything works out.”

Der Bingle sang ‘Blue Moon’ as did Billie Holiday. The most recent version I know of is by Rod Stewart and I’ve been afraid to seek it out as I’m still down in the grooves of the albums he recorded for Mercury in the early seventies. Between my ears I can hear Bryan Ferry circa These Foolish Things and Another Time, Another Place delivering a suave, slightly off-kilter take. Willie Nelson would strip it to the bone, arranging ‘Blue Moon’ for accompaniment by just ‘Trigger’ and a brush on a snare. What is passing strange – as if anything is unremarkable about His Bobness – is that Dylan did not include ‘Blue Moon’ on either Shadows in the Night or Triplicate, his two albums of American standards which together comprise four CDs.

My mother has become increasingly infirm but she is compos mentis and consequently angry with the hand of cards she’s been dealt late in her long life. Mom prays every day to die that night in her sleep. The gulf between us is wide enough to include Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. We do not speak as often as we should. There’s a sort of a tacit agreement between us: Mom won’t call Edmonton because she doesn’t want to phone just to complain and I won’t call Montreal because I don’t want to listen to her just complain. There’s always the weather, two minutes on a topic more suited for engaging a stranger on a train platform; idle conversation is for other people.

Bless the art of Rodgers and Hart. Late last March Mom phoned. She sounded excited for the first time in many weeks. “Geoffrey, I’m looking out my window. There’s a huge blue moon. Can you see it?” I went outside with the handset to my head and said I could indeed. “Do you remember when I used to sing and you’d cry? I thought of you. I thought I should call.”

“Yes, I remember, Mom. How could I ever forget?”

I was very glad she was prompted to telephone me about the blue moon, our common satellite. Just like that she’d changed the pitch of our conversations, erasing a few years of stilted communication about nothing. I’m in touch with her more frequently now and I’ve no qualms making stuff up, telling Mom I just heard Sinatra’s version of ‘Blue Moon’ on CKUA. I tell her about the Marcels, a rhythm and blues vocal outfit named for a hairstyle that was fashionable around the time I was born. And I add that she raised a music nut who focuses on the words. I now listen to my Rodgers and Hart a little more often than I used to.

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